Due to a series of unfortunate events, I wasn’t able to update this blog, so this entry is about five days late. We are now stuck in Laos, and have all the time in the world to just laze around. Our interesting (to say the least) story about Laos will come later. For now, let me talk about Phnom Penh.
The Limousine Ride
Our trip to Cambodia was pretty straightforward. Okay, so we cheated and asked our hotel in Saigon (Nguyen Kang Hotel—highly recommended) to book us a tourist bus to Phnom Penh (for USD12 each), a big beautiful limousine bus, which was, well, big and beautiful but not a bit limousine like. The ride was uneventful as the stewardess took care of everything, including filling out our departure cards. No sweat.
The border was pretty neat; the Cambodian side looked wealthier with casinos and posh establishments dotting the border highway. And I thought, So much for Saigon. Phnom Penh is the place to be! I swallowed my words when we got to a dock where ferries transported buses across the Mekong River. Trash was everywhere. Beggars were trying to get into the bus, and hawkers insisted on selling us what looked like fried snakes and cockroaches. I could almost hear my nephew Basty screaming, Eeeeeewwwwww! A child even tried to snatch my last bite of doughnut from my mouth, only to jab her tiny hand against the glass window. Poor kid, maybe she was too hungry to see the glass.
The big and beautiful limousine bus moved on, into the center of Phnom Penh. Cambodia prides itself as the Kingdom of Wonders, but I could barely see the wonders therein because of the dust blanket that covered the city. What a shame.
All bus journeys are supposed to end in a bus station, a proper bus station. Ours ended in a marketplace, with pushy tuktuk drivers to boast of. Good thing, the hostel we booked (Capitol Guest House—basic, cheap, great for backpackers) was just a block from the bus stop. So we maneuvered our way into the crowd and traffic, my myopic eyes failing me as I was almost hit by a motorcycle as I was crossing the street on green light. The good thing about not speaking and understanding the local language is that we don’t figure out right away the insults thrown at us by angry drivers.
Phnom Penh’s Heartbreaking History
A visit to the Killing Fields replaced my negative impression of the city with a feeling I can’t really put my finger on—a feeling that will haunt me for a long time. I’ve learned about Polpot and the massacre of millions of Khmer people, but what I read in books never truly captured the brutality and inhumanness (if there’s such a word) of the Khmer Rouge.
While the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam tell a story of hope and survival, the Killing Fields depicts despair and death. Entering the gates instantly gave me an eerie feeling. After all, it was a burial ground of hundreds of thousands of souls—ordinary Khmer people, political figures, foreign diplomats, innocent children—who were transported from S21 prison (formerly a school, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), tortured, slaughtered, and dumped together like animal carcasses in shallow graves. Babies’ heads were allegedly smashed against a tree trunk while mothers watched in despair. All these things happened while loud music was played to dampen the moans of the victims before their final breath.
During the liberation in 1979, the graves were discovered and the corpses exhumed. The skeletal remains of the victims now lie in a commemorative stupa in the compound.
Our next stop was the Tuol Sleung Museum, formerly primary and high school which was turned (in 1975) into the S21 headquarters where prisoners were detained, interrogated, tortured, and killed. The unusual thing about this prison, though, is that photos were taken of the detainees and their “confessions” documented before they were silenced forever.
On January 7, 1979, the Cambodian government collected all the evidence in S21 such as photographs, films, prisoner confession archives, torture tools, shackles, and 14 badly decomposed corpses of 14 victims. These evidences (except for the corpses, of course) are now on display in the museum as a reminder of the anguish and suffering that the evil Polpot regime brought upon the once-peaceful land.
More about Polpot and the Khmer Rouge here.
Seeing the City in Style
Okay, let’s lighten up a bit. After a heart-wrenching day at the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, Pinky and I decided to shake the sad vibes off by seeing the livelier side of Phnom Penh. We hired a tuktuk for 2 USD to take us to the downtown area, a picturesque spot along the Mekong Delta.
The charming scene provided a great backdrop for our vanity photo shoot. Hehe. There was really nothing much to do while waiting for the Royal Palace to open at 2:00 p.m.
Now about the Royal Palace. How can a self-confessed civilized lass like me not know that royalties frown upon skimpy shorts, sleeveless shirts, and short dresses? I was refused entry because I was dressed so unglamorously like this:
But hey, there was hope; I had a very stylish ticket to the palace. Three dollars poorer later, I was admitted with my million-dollar look:
I swear, the other tourists were just drooling over my fashion sense, as they kept throwing me jealous looks as if I were Halle Berry. Sa masuya lang. Hahaha!
So I toured the Royal Palace compound in jaw-dropping style.